Sonja Sohn Discusses The Legacy Of ‘The Wire’ And Its Potential As A Tool For Social Change

Sonja Sohn
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On July 18, Dominic West, Michael Kenneth Williams, Wendell Pierce and many other cast members from HBO’s The Wire will reunite in Baltimore for WIRED UP!: A Celebration of the Spirit and Power of the People of Baltimore. Founded by Sonja Sohn and her castmates, the non-profit ReWired for Change offers support to the city’s high-risk youth “before they are lost to the destructive circumstances of their everyday lives.” As part of this year’s Artscape festival, WIRED UP! is a free event held at the Lyric Opera House and will showcase four of Baltimore’s “unsung heroes.” And there will probably be plenty of discussion about The Wire, too.

For this event, Sohn and her co-stars from The Wire issued a statement about their ongoing purpose in giving back to the community that was represented in their critically-acclaimed series:

“One of the root causes of the Baltimore Uprising was a feeling that the people, particularly those living in marginalized communities, have not been listened to by the establishment. Their needs and demands for more jobs and policies that reflected their interests were not being addressed, which led to frustration that festered and became a powder keg, of sorts. As artists, we know the power – and necessity – of channeling that energy. Wired Up! is our attempt to create a platform for the people in a creative and inspiring way; to give voice to their experiences and to use creativity as way to inspire them to continue their journey of working for change in their city. By offering them a way to connect with one another, to community leaders and to advocacy groups, we feel we can truly wire people up, inspiring them to work towards their deepest desire for a better life, better neighborhoods and a better, more socially-engaged and community-connected city of Baltimore.”

With the event two weeks away and following the release of The Wire on Blu-ray, we caught up with Sohn to discuss her role as Detective Kima Greggs, as well as the incredible lasting legacy of this powerful and influential series.

When you were starting out on The Wire, what did you think of your character and her story?

I was excited to play this black, lesbian cop because, to the best of my knowledge, at the time, there had not been a black lesbian on TV ever. And so I felt that I had an opportunity to give a face and a voice to this character, to a population of people who had not been represented in entertainment in a big way at the time. Since then, that’s changed. But I will say that the daunting part of this for me was just playing a cop. I wasn’t terribly excited about playing a cop. My relationship with cops, at that point in my life, was one that was a bit complicated and not very positive so, I wondered how I was going to… I knew that I had my work cut out for me in terms of bringing a human face to this cop. And so I stepped into a daunting task in that regard.

Was there any aspect, any part of her you could immediately identify with or grab onto to connect more?

With Kima, I think what I could connect with most is that she was highly personable and strong. She was someone who was very grounded in her convictions and principles. And she was unwavering in her commitment to this. That was where I found the deepest resonance with the character. The other way I found resonance with her is that — and this is what enabled me to play her as a cop, and through my research and riding along with cops, and reading cops who were very much like Kima in this way — Kima really wanted to protect and serve the people. She saw that there was a necessity. She saw that she had a genuine intention to protect and serve the people. Once she got into the police department, like a lot of the good cops in the show, she saw that intention. Despite her best intentions, there were forces at play that created obstacles for her to do the work that she felt she was committed and purposed to do. I had deep resonance for her, the character, in that I resonated with this walking through the world, my duty on some level is to serve, and that whatever job I have has to be connected to that element in my life.

Can you tell me what it was like for you going through the audition process?

Honestly, I auditioned for the role during a two-year drought. But it happened during a year where I just felt I was really at the top of my game in terms of auditioning. I was turning out a lot of great work, and it was just a matter of time. Every time I’d go into an audition, it was like, I was approaching every audition like my job was the audition. If I get the role, great. But I’m an actor, and the actor’s job is to audition. Every time I get to perform, I’m working. So, I walked into this audition like I was walking into any other audition. I walked in, I did my job, and I walked out. The job was over at that point. If I did it, great, that’s what I want. But if I don’t get it? Great, I was happy with what I laid down in the room. I put myself in the mindset that, during the casting process, walking in, I’m doing a job. I did the job, I’m done. Next job up. What is it?

The auditions for that show, it wasn’t an official casting process. I don’t know how HBO casts now. I don’t know if they cast in the same way. But, at the time, they didn’t cast the way an established network casts, a primetime network casts, where you go in and then there’s this meeting, you did a great job. It’s you and three other people. And then there’s a big meeting with 10 to 20 people between the network and the studio, and everybody balances out what character they think is the right one. I went in for it, I read for it with Alexa Fogel, who at that time was just a caveat of mine. She just believed that I should be working and believed that there was some place that my talents should be. She called me on a regular basis. She was one of the most amazing casting directors I’ve ever met. I came in and, two weeks later, I got a callback. I knew I was going to be in a room with the creator, showrunner, and director. But I thought it was just a callback. And that there was going to be another one if I didn’t get that one. When I came into the room, I just laid it down. David and Bob were there. I didn’t feel like there were particularly any fireworks in the room. There was no big conversation afterwards. I basically came in, I did it, I left.

I didn’t hear anything that week, so I thought I didn’t get the job. I was just twiddling my thumbs. I was moving on. I didn’t get that job until a month after I auditioned. It was a month later when I got the call. And I’m wondering why my agent and my manager are on the phone, because they’re only on the phone when there’s a job. I’m like, why are they on the phone? I haven’t auditioned for anything in a month. That’s how I got the gig. For me, the casting process was, in a way, underwhelming. My feeling is there were probably a few other people in line in front of me, and, as a matter of fact, I know there were other people in front of me.

During that process, did you realize the potential of the show? That it was a show that would resonate with so many people?

I don’t know, I was just trying to book a gig, man. With every audition, the dream machine starts, but, after a while, you have to make some level of investment; you have to believe that it’s yours, you have to believe that it’s big. That’s the fuel that makes you a creative person. In fact, me and Andre Royo (Bubbles) even watching the pilot, we’re like, “Okay, this is interesting, but it’s a job.” I think I can do a great job with the character, I’m interested. I’m a little concerned about the stereotyping. I was a little concerned about the street story, and I was like, “Hmmm, I don’t know about these white folks writing this street story. I hope it turns out okay!” Fingers crossed. At the end of the day, I needed the gig, I needed to pay my bills, so I went out. But it became quite clear that if I was going to be in a cop show, and if I was going to be in a show that told an urban story, this was the only one I ever wanted to do. Absolutely.

Is it true that you almost quit the series in the first season?

Yes, ma’am.

How did you decide to stay?

I don’t think people really want to hear that because it’s a spiritual reason, and people don’t want to hear about spiritual things. I definitely almost quit, and I stayed because something inside me was telling me that my role on this show was part of a larger purpose that I had in life. And despite the fact that going to work every day was like torture, I had to complete this assignment because it was part of a bigger picture in my life that I couldn’t see. I didn’t care about the money. I pretty much, at that time and now, take a much less materialistic view of the world. So, it wasn’t about the money. I didn’t care about being famous. And, at that time, I was really ready to walk away from acting and actually go into writing, which was my first love. I would have happily turned around and done that. But there was something deeper inside of me that led me to believe that this was part of a bigger picture that I couldn’t see, and that I would regret it if I quit. And that whatever difficulties I was having, if I stayed the course that I would be able to see the difference. So I stayed.

At what point in doing the show did you realize it was such a huge hit?

There was no point in the five years we shot it that anybody was saying, “Oh my God, it’s a huge hit!” Because it never was a hit. But if what you’re asking is at what point in the show did I realize that what we were doing would have a lasting impact, I would say probably the first season, the second or third episode when Omar came on board. And I felt that character, another character that’s real, that’s never been seen before on TV, and I saw the veil being lifted from the police department, and you could see the real inner workings of law enforcement and how it’s tied to politics. Somewhere between maybe episode two or three, it really started to become clear that we were a part of something special. That this show was more than entertainment. That it was a tool for enlightenment and social change. That it was everything that art should be. As we got to the end of the first season, we all knew we were part of something really special.